With Emoluments Clause, Trump Places “Brand” Above Constitution

 

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“Follow the money.” “It’s literally right there. It isn’t even trying to hide.”

 

The least surprising story of the week is also maybe the most enraging…

In January, Donald Trump’s lawyer said that the Trump Organization would donate any profits earned at Trump hotels from a foreign government to the US Treasury. The move was supposedly an attempt to stay on the right side of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits US government officials from taking gifts or benefiting from foreign governments. Ethics experts noted that the pledge, issued by attorney Sheri Dillon, did not truly address this violation of the Constitution. Trump needed to divest his ownership of the hotels, they contended. And now new documents released by congressional Democrats show that Trump is not taking even his insufficient effort seriously.

How does the Trump Organization determine which foreign funds ought to be donated? Not too assiduously, it appears. The House Oversight Committee several weeks ago asked the Trump Organization for information on this process. In response, the company sent the committee a nine-page pamphlet that instructs staff at its properties on how to handle this matter. The pamphlet indicates that the Trump Organization is not enthusiastic about gathering this information and doesn’t want its guests bothered by any efforts to comply with the Emoluments Clause.

The pamphlet notes that the hotels should not calculate the profit from foreign patronage but rather estimate it. After all, it says, calculating the actual profit would take a lot of effort: “To attempt to individually track and distinctly attribute certain business-related costs as specifically identifiable to a particular customer group is not practical, nor would it even be possible without an inordinate amount of time, resources and specialists.”

When it comes to identifying foreign revenues, the pamphlet tells Trump hotel staff not to try too hard, for that could annoy the customers: “To fully and completely identify all patronage at our Properties by customer type is impractical in the service industry and putting forth a policy that requires all guests to identify themselves would impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand.” So, the pamphlet points out, the Trump Organization will not try to identify customers who do not inform the hotel that they are representing a foreign government.

(All from Mother Jones, which, as always, is on it)

This is, first of all, a textbook case of how Trump has always worked. Make a big show and then nothing coming of it, whether it is the huge birth certificate announcement or a solemn pledge to uphold the Constitution. Because in his oily reptilian brain Trump knows that the announcement gets the headline, but the follow-through never does.

It’s clever, too: “estimating profits” is perfect. They will “donate” a certain amount of hotel profits that they estimate come from foreign sources, which means, as MJ points out, a foreign government could spend millions of dollars at a hotel that is just breaking even, and none of that would be reported. And it goes without saying that “Trump Possibly Donating Only Percentage of Estimated Profits From Hotel Business” isn’t going to be front-page news.

But you don’t even have to get into the weeds of this scheme to see why it is breathtaking and maddening. They are literally saying that following the Constitution would be too hard, and that it wouldn’t be good for their business. To which one could say, well, shithead, you didn’t have to run for President, but that would be belaboring the obvious. He clearly ran for President partly as a way to make more money. He’s exactly the greedy and terrible person he always was. This isn’t a surprise.

This is exactly how corruption works. Not the minutia, or the actual taking of money; we’re all familiar with how greedy people try to enrich themselves. But how systems and countries become corrupted and rotted. This is how it happens.

I’m not being naive here. America has always been a greedy land, a capitalistic engine that destroys everything in its path. Politicians have always taken from the till, when they haven’t been outright controlling the till. But this is something different.

This isn’t just theft. It is a subversion of the Constitution itself, and it is done flagrantly and openly. That they are sort of dancing around it by being cute isn’t an attempt at subtlety; it is making the crassness behind the moneygrab even more blatant. They are saying, openly: what are you going to do about it?

That’s true corruption. It’s exposing the weakness in a system, which assumes decency but is also ruthlessly partisan, for you own advantage. It’s daring anyone to stop you and knowing that they won’t. It both assumes, and promotes, a moral decay.  Because what this says, clearly, is that the institutions, the rules, the very documents to which we pledge allegiance, don’t matter if you are powerful.

We’ve always known that power corrupts, and all that, but in ths history of the American Presidency it has generally been to get more power. People around the President have been greedy and venal, but even Nixon wasn’t bagging cash, for the most part. At least, that wasn’t his sole or even primary goal. It was “just” to crush the Democrats so he could run the world the way he goddamn saw fit.

That’s why this is different. It’s cheap and it is dirty. It’s grubbing and low and vile. This corruption is entirely about money. It reduces the Presidency to a casino, a back-alley game of craps, a bunch of sweaty mooks in a garage office selling phony insurance to widows. Jack Abramoff and and Boss Tweed broke the law to get money. Trump is breaking the Constitution, entirely for money, and no one is stopping him.

Think about it: they literally said that protecting their “brand” was more important than scrupulously following the Constitution. Their brand! I can’t think of a better encapsulation of our idiot moment, one that let a remarkably stupid and inhumanely crass and greedy reality show idiot lie his dumbfuck way to the White House. He won on his “brand”, and his brand is a guy who relentless promotes his brand. It’s looping nonsense, a post-postmodern commerical for commercials.

And no Republican is stopping this. That’s corruption in its truest sense. Putrefaction doesn’t happen because of death; death just allows the bacteria that was always inside to work its rotting ways. Death means you can’t fight off worms any longer. Death is merely the precipitating factor to corporeal corruption.

That was Trump. But we were already on our way. We are a nation obsessed with brands and disinterested in facts. We’re too big and unruly, and have become too partisan. Our system has allowed for the tyranny of the minority (and the seating of Neal Gorsuch is the starkest example of that). Trump corrupted us by being the final death, but we were on our way.

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Dear GOP: Mike Pence Hates Health Care and Loves Tax Cuts, Too

 

You guys already bond over horrible things! Wouldn’t this be nicer?

 

If I were a Republican (which sharp-eyed and politically astute readers of this blog will recognize I am not), my basic calculations in the wake of the Comey firing would be this:

  • We’ve supported Trump so that we could kick millions of people off health care and cut taxes for the rich.
  • And oh yeah, destroy the environment and the public good!
  • And he’s been super willing to do that, so it’s been ok to ignore the troublesome what-have-yous over his total lack of mental or moral capacities for the job.  He’ll sign anything to get a win so he can pretend to be Mr. Businessgenius President, and anyway, the Mexican and the Muslim stuff has been a great bonus. Aces all around!
  • But ok, this might be too much. You can’t fire the FBI director because he’s investigating your Russian crimes, man. This looks superbad, even though we love the strongman thing. Except when the black guy does it, then it is tyranny.
  • So, can we get through this? If we get rid of him, can we still get our stuff done?
  • Let’s say we impeach. It’s a bad year, really bad. But we look brave! And the media calls us heroic, putting the country ahead of our party. And then we have President Pence, and he hates taxes, health care, the public good, the environment, hippies, and liberals as much as we do. And he hates abortionists and gays way more than Trump!
  • So we can weather this impeachment, because god knows our democracy is literally under assault, and still get stuff done before the midterms. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll actually pick up seats for our courage.

There are flaws in this calculation. For one, what if Trump doesn’t care if he is impeached and refuses to leave? And the drama of displacing a President might overtake everything else, especially this President. And you might lose the base entirely. And you might not be done by 2018.

And I may be assuming facts not in evidence. I am assuming there is a baseline of genuine patriotism here. That despite their love for voter suppression, the GOP doesn’t actually want to see us go full banana. That Trump, whole embarrassing, is sort of exactly what they want. So I might be making a few too many assumptions, really.

But dammit, come on. President Pence will give you what you want! I would loathe a Pence Presidency. He’s a theocrat and a bigot and kind of a dummy and I’d fight every one of his policies, but he is so within the acceptable norms. I even sort of fear a post-impeachment Pence, because the sigh of relief will be so great that he will be sort of unshackled. Any opposition might be seen as gauche.

But things are so bad now, and we’re so close to an epochal constitutional disaster, that I’d embrace that. Even if it is for the wrong reasons–to make it easier to pursue their terrible agenda–one has to hope that the GOP discovers some patriotism, before it is too late.

The Comey Firing and the Coming Constitutional Crisis: Crossing the Border

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When talking about the firing of James Comey, that smirkingly moralistic Boy Scout who clearly decided to hand over the election to Donald Trump, there are a few things to stipulate.

  1. The stated reasons for his firing–that he engaged in a grotesque abuse of power, or at the very least, political malpractice in how he handled Clinton’s emails–were the correct ones. James Comey should no more be the Director of the FBI than I should.
  2. The stated reasons are clearly bullshit.
  3. The stated reasons are initially clever, but incredibly witless. They hang a lampshade on how cheap and petty the arrangement is.  They only make it more clear that this is, in one way or the other, about Russia.

You can tell the Administration is somehow stunned that no one believes their nonpartisan rectitude in this manner. They honestly expected to be praised for this. That’s how they operate: they still assume that if they say something, us normal non-billionaire totally un-President people should believe it.  It’s Trump’s way. One of the reasons for his increasingly erratic ways are that it isn’t working. The media isn’t just reporting what he says as reality.

Because really, this is too much. I bet there are 10 hours and 2000 tweets worth of material on top Republicans praising Comey for disclosing the Anthony Weiner email “investigation” (and I still can’t believe we have to talk about that as a world-changing event). Many of these are by the President! We’re expected to believe that they are now outraged about this? And if so, why five months in?

It is belaboring the obvious to say that this is about Russia. It’s either that Comey got “too close” to something they are trying to hide, or just that he refuses to close the investigation, to do the bidding of Donald Trump. Either way, these aren’t headlines we should be reading in America.

But again, the lie is the key here. In his public letter, Trump says “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” Why even bring that up? It’s a way to change the story, to say, “see, there’s nothing here!” It’s the typical Trumpian con. You can just say anything, so long as it gets you to a yes.

That reckless cynicism and nearly supernatural disregard for the truth isn’t just a part of this crisis; it is key to it. They actual tawdry crimes and corruption that drive this Administration are, in and of themselves, enough to cause a genuine catastrophe, but it is what they are driven by that makes this moment so scary.

Our system of government is formed less around laws than it is around norms and expected behavior. There are rules, but when they are broken, there is shockingly little that can be done until the rule-breaker himself is forced to change his behavior. When the exemption on conflict of interest rules were carved out for the President due to the complexity of the job, it was assumed that the President would avoid potential conflicts, not that he would see it as carte blanche, an open door. That’s obviously not the case with Trump.

He has no instincts except to enrich himself and to further his brand. There isn’t a democratic bone in his body, or a thought for the greater good anywhere in the arid warped-mirror desert of his mind. That’s why he can fire the FBI Director for lack of loyalty: he thinks this is how it should be, and there is really no way to stop him.

That’s the problem, and that’s why we are in a crisis. It was assumed that the President wouldn’t be in hock to a foreign power and wouldn’t have every top staffer equally entangled. It was assumed they wouldn’t fire the FBI Director for looking into it. It was assumed that they would adhere to some basic democratic standards. Donald Trump, with his unique and terrible sicknesses and vanities, turned out all those assumptions.

That’s what has always worried me the most about this Administration. That the only real mechanisms to stopping his revolt against the Constitutional order were Republicans, enthralled with a right-wing strongman and unable to put basic patriotism over their lust for tax cuts. And even if they did (and now is the moment, boys), there is only so much that can be done.

Let’s say this is impeachable (High crimes and misdemeanors are not just jailable offenses, but crimes against the Presidency), or something is, and the GOP actually decides to do it.  Say they impeach, and the Senate convicts. Then what? What if he refuses to leave? Again, it is assumed that a convicted President will leave office, but what if he refuses to, claiming that Congress can’t usurp an election? What horrors await us there?

This is the problem. We assume a President will behave one way. This one won’t. I’ve been worried that at some point he will order the military to do something flagrantly illegal, or that he’ll govern as a strongman, ruining our democracy, and the military will have to decide to do something. (This is the Turkish model, as I argued) A coup against an elected leader is antithetical to democracy, but it also might be needed. It is a terrible, unfathomable situation. But it is fathomable, now.

We have no idea how this President will act or what he’ll do. We don’t know if we have the legal mechanisms to alter some of his worst behaviors. We don’t know if he’ll follow the Constitution, and impeachment is part of the Constitution. If he doesn’t follow that, then what?

The title of this post is about a border. I felt that on Jan 20th we crossed the border into another land, in a way. Our conceptions of ourselves have changed, because the norms that guided us don’t any longer. It’s a psychic shock, and I think the naked and sweaty corruption of yesterday’s assault on democratic norms is pushing us further across the line.

(B)eyond his ignorance, his vapid stupidity, his tireless and pathetic ego, is that he is the exact kind of dull and base grotesquerie we’d laugh at in other countries. There is nothing there but ego and avarice, brainless pronunciations in the service of cheap laughs from his braying sycophants, who react tumescently whenever he punches down. He’s the comic bouffant strongman, the kind you see in some wretched mountain land. And that’s the border we somehow crossed over.

The true psychic shock of this transition will, I think, be hard to measure, and hard to predict. But I do think, now that the elegies are over and Donald Trump is sworn in, placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible, that there will be a subtle breaking. Its effects won’t be felt all at once, of course. But our conception of who we are will change.

We’ll have a penny-ante Balkan-esque strongman in the White House instead of a President. We’ll have a witless dummy who thinks his smirks are poetry. We’ll have a man whose conception of leadership is finding and punishing enemies. Our country will be different. We’ll be different.

I wrote this in January. I was hoping to be wrong, and the resistance still makes me hopeful. I do think that this might really spur the GOP into action, partly because he made them look foolish (most of them praised Comey for the October letter with effusive partisan bonhomie). But we also might be slowly ground underfoot, one lie at a time, until we think the bottom of a shoe is the wideopen sky.